A God Big Enough

Sias van Schalkwyk, http://www.sxc.hu/
© Sias van Schalkwyk, http://www.sxc.hu/

This week’s post is from Sir John Houghton, former Director General of the British MET Office, and former co-chair of the scientific assessment working group of the IPCC. This post was adapted from a chapter from the book Real Science, Real Faith (Monarch, 1991)*

When people discover that I am involved with weather forecasting and also that I am a Christian, I am often asked if I believe that there is any point in praying about the weather—praying for rain, for instance, when it is badly needed. I reply that I believe it is entirely sensible and meaningful to pray about the weather as, indeed, it is to pray about other things. But I also say that my belief in the meaningfulness of prayer in no way alters my determination as a scientist to develop the very best means of weather forecasting, nor does it cause me to doubt that the behaviour of weather systems follows deterministic scientific laws.

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Looking East at Sunset

Wotjow, commons.wikimedia.org
Anticrepuscular rays, 2011. Wotjow, commons.wikimedia.org

I have written about science being creative, and here’s a great story along those lines: the poet and priest Gerard Manley Hopkins published in the scientific journal Nature*. Hopkins’ contribution to science took the form of two letters, A Curious Halo and Shadow-Beams in the East at Sunset, that were published in November 1882 and November 1883, based on observations he had made of the setting sun.

Hopkins did something most people don’t think of, and turned his back to the setting sun. What he saw was a series of rays that looked as if they were coming from the horizon at a point opposite the sun. This light-effect had already been observed by meteorologists, and is simply the shadows of clouds in front of the sun, cast from one horizon to the other. Perspective makes these shadows appear to be converging in the east, but they are in fact parallel. The technical name for them is ‘anticrepuscular rays’. Continue reading

Atmospherics

On my recent trip to the US I visited Kathy Strabala, who works in meteorology & remote sensing in the Space Science & Engineering Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Here are some of her thoughts on awe, wonder and worship.

How can you not see God in the power of a storm? The energy that’s created is more powerful than an atom bomb, and it all comes from the processes of the sun and the earth and the atmosphere and the ocean – talk about green energy! A storm rolled through Madison this morning that had spectacular power and energy in just one strike of a lightening bolt. We are powerless to stop it, and we can’t harness it – it’s too much energy. I see God in that. It’s exciting to me that I know what the structures are in the atmosphere that cause that storm. These structures are ordered, so we can study them. It’s not chaos, but that doesn’t mean we can control them.

During a big storm there’s no work done in our building. One time there was a tornado across the lake and the tornado warning sirens were going off. People were going into shelter areas, but everyone in our building was on the roof watching it. A small tornado doesn’t really ever show up in the satellite data, so the best observation is your eyes. When I see something like that I feel nothing but awe and respect, and am to a certain extent grateful even to witness something like that.

I teach workshops on how to use satellite data. We have a tool that allows the students to plot scatter diagrams that describe different spectra in the atmosphere: the clouds, the atmosphere, and the surface. The patterns that are revealed through these plots are just amazing. The student’s eyes get bigger and bigger as they think, ‘Look at this, wow this is exciting’, and that’s what happens when I look at that type of data too. I love being able to say ‘Look at this data, look at what you can see, look how beautiful this is. Look at these patterns that arrive in nature.’

There is no way that this field of study would exist if we didn’t have an ordered, structured environment. The more I learn the more I can believe that God is good. Even looking at the balance of our atmosphere is amazing. It’s so thin – just a tiny little layer – and yet we exist.

I love hearing this sort of reflection from a scientist, and hope – perhaps in another medium – to write in more detail about their work so that others can share the wonder.